2017 MBAs To Watch: Aqeela Nanji, University of Toronto (Rotman)

Aqeela Nanji

Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

“Professionally, I am proactive, analytical, and organized. Personally, I am introverted, quirky, and nerdy.”

Age: 28

Hometown: North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Fun fact about yourself: As a teenager, I led a presentation on youth leadership and capacity-building at the United Nation’s World Urban Forum, the world’s premier conference on urban issues.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Honours Bachelors of Arts in 45, University of Toronto

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Manager, Measurement and Marketing Science at Flipp, a growing Toronto technology company that is disrupting the $40-billion worldwide circular market.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2016? I interned with NeXus Consulting Group in Toronto, Ontario. NeXus is a student-run non-profit consulting company. I worked with national and local Canadian charities to improve their operations and launch new initiatives.

Where will you be working after graduation? I will be joining Amazon as a Senior Program Manager, working on supply chain and logistics projects.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • President of The Letters, Rotman’s LGBTQ and allies club, where I created a program specifically for closeted students who are mostly from other countries.
  • Organized an inaugural student panel on diversity and inclusion initiatives for 350 first-year MBA students.
  • Mentored 6 students: 4 first-year MBA students and 2 undergraduate business students.
  • Advised and supported the creation of Access to Success, an initiative creating awareness of and advocating for students with disabilities.
  • Advised the Rotman Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee on LGBTQ inclusion.
  • Active member of the Operations student group.

Representing the Business School:

  • Reaching Out MBA Club Leadership Summit and conferences in Chicago and Dallas
  • Forté Foundation conference in Washington, DC
  • Start Proud conferences in Toronto
  • T. Kearney’s Consulting Camp in Chicago
  • Study tour in China

Scholarships and awards:

  • Forté Fellowship, 2015
  • Reaching Out MBA Fellowship, 2015
  • PwC Fellowship, 2015
  • Mary Verna Simmonds Fellowship in Social Change, 2016
  • Diversity and Inclusion Award, 2016

Community Work:

  • Steering committee member for the 2017 Out Women in Business conference in New York City
  • Social media campaign coordinator for my swing dance club, Swingin’OUT
  • Consultant for national and local non-profit organizations, through NeXus

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I introduced a new component to first-year orientation: a session on diversity and inclusion initiatives. It included two student-made videos, an interactive game, and a panel. The session was less than two hours long, but I had spent months preparing by designing content, soliciting feedback, and reaching out to potential speakers. The hard work paid off. The session was one of the most impactful sessions at orientation and has inspired others to create their own student movements. Access to Success (a group devoted to raising awareness around visible and invisible disabilities), for example, was launched this year as a result of the learning models shared.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I had worked at Flipp for only seven weeks when I became an integral part of launching a new advertising product. I collaborated with developers and executives, created marketing resources, and established processes for daily operations. It was a scary yet incredibly exciting project – I had zero experience in business, operations, or marketing. However, the product launched successfully due to my contributions and the project ignited my passion for technology and operations.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? There are so many great professors at Rotman, it is hard to choose just one! Tiziana Casciaro is definitely on the list. She is energetic, funny, and sets high standards for her students. Her classes are as entertaining as they are educational, we often have games and contests to practice what we have learned, and Tiziana pushes us to develop our understanding by providing real-time, candid feedback.

What was your favorite MBA Course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My independent study project, through which I am writing a case study with professors at Rotman and INSEAD on a social enterprise that is increasing access to technology in rural India by reducing consumer risk through a strong reverse logistics system. Biggest insight: innovation doesn’t have to be technology-based!

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Rotman for two reasons. The first is that it is the best business school in Canada. My teachers are leading experts in their fields, the networking opportunities are unparalleled, and the experiential learning opportunities are out of the world.

The second is that it had just launched a major in Sustainability, which is one of my areas of interest. In my Sustainability Strategy course, I get to meet with at least two industry executives each class and learn from their experience implementing environmental and social impact initiatives. Additionally, the Executive-In-Residence of the program is meeting with my team every week to help develop our idea for a new social enterprise. The Sustainability major has completely exceeded my expectations.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? There are so many things I enjoyed about Rotman: my fellow students, professors, curriculum, and networking opportunities to name a few. However, the one thing that I thoroughly enjoyed but did not expect was the friendships I developed with various staff members. Popping into administrative offices to get a form or ask a simple question always results in lovely conversations, and sometimes even grabbing coffee or lunch together.

What was the most surprising thing about business school for you? The technology company I worked at prior to the MBA hired for culture fit. Although employees all had different interests, there were core traits that many of us shared. I envisioned that Rotman would be similar, and was delightfully surprised to find that I was wrong. Throughout the program, I really came to appreciate the different leadership and communication styles exhibited by not only my fellow students, but also the professors and administrative staff.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Think about careers other than consulting. With access to Rotman’s student and alumni network, your career possibilities are endless. Take the time to consider unconventional career pathways, such as supply chain management or organizational behaviour.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth about Rotman is that most students are only interested in finance and consulting. Although many students come into the program wanting a career in either of those two fields (myself included), they open their options as they progress through the program. Upon graduation, so many of my fellow students are heading into fields such as digital strategy, learning and development, and retail operations. Our varied experiences and interests provide the foundation for robust discussions in and outside of the classroom.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret is not socializing more. I am an introvert whereas the vast majority of students are extroverted – it can be intimidating! I am spending my last three months of the program going out to more events and meeting new people.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? There are so many. However, if I had to choose one, it would a friend who came out as gay halfway through the program. He arrived at Rotman completely closeted, helped establish the new LGBTQ club, and ended the program by speaking on a panel to the entire incoming class about his experience being a gay international student. I admire his courage and initiative, and it has been an honour to be a part of his journey.

I knew I wanted to go to business school when…my friend pitched the idea to me in the third-year of my undergraduate program. An MBA combined with my undergraduate education in Gender Studies and Indigenous Studies seemed like the perfect combination for my career goal at the time: non-profit management.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…In law school, preparing for a career in immigration law.”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? I would create more opportunities like the Rotman Onboard Fellowship Program, where students spend 6-8 months completing strategic governance projects for non-profit organizations. It would be great to have more opportunities, of varying levels of commitment, for students to exercise both their education and community service.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I would like to oversee a transformation in supply chain management. Specifically, I envision myself implementing new measures to make a supply chain more ethical, ensuring those in the developing world have safe and equitable working conditions in resource extraction, product manufacturing, and transportation.

Who would you most want to thank for your success? My parents – they instilled in me the inner drive to always do my best.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like my peers to remember me as a friend and a smart, responsible future collaborator.

Favorite book: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Favorite movie or television show: Sister Act

Favorite musical performer: Rae Spoon

Favorite vacation spot: The Magdalen Islands (Îles de la Madeleine), a series of small, isolated islands in Eastern Canada. Every summer the locals take part in a 2-day contest, building unusual and colourful boats on the beach. It is quite entertaining!

Hobbies? I swing dance and play piano. My weekly swing dance class is wonderful because it is a volunteer-run program at Toronto’s LGBTQ community centre. I also try to find time to do crafts, especially sewing and home DIY projects. In the past two years, I made two dresses, a messenger bag, and two scrapbooks. I also modernized my kitchen for under $100!

What made Aqueela such an invaluable addition to the class of 2017?

“I have been extraordinarily impressed with Aqeela’s accomplishments while at the Rotman School. They extend her already excellent history of community activism and engagement. What is remarkable about Aqeela is her sensitivity to important intersections in our community between gender, sexual orientation, race and class. At every turn, she has pushed for representation of people of color in LGBTQ events, for lesbians in women’s events, etc.

This is also evidenced by the fact that she was simultaneously selected to be a Forté Fellow and a Reaching Out Fellow (ROMBA) as she entered Rotman. She has taken on the leadership of our LGBTQ student group, “The Letters.” This group was only founded last year and so it has been up to Aqeela and her team to maintain the momentum and build a large group of LGBTQ students and, importantly, their allies. This included a major public event this past fall bringing together senior executives to talk about “being an ally.” This event was attended by more than 250 students and members of the Toronto community. In addition to the MBA group, she has been a mentor for the Rotman Commerce (undergraduate) Pride Alliance, creating a safe space for younger gay and lesbian students on campus. And all of this is on top of being a principal in the NeXus student consulting group on campus, which carries a full, for-profit consulting case load.”

Sarah Kaplan

Professor of Strategic Management

Distinguished Professor of Gender & the Economy

Director, Institute for Gender + the Economy